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Interview: Prison Child Of The Iranian Revolution

Iranian women inside a prison cell in the women's section of Tehran's notorious Evin prison in 2006. Sahar Delijani's mother and father were both imprisoned after the 1979 revolution.
Sahar Delijani was born in Tehran's notorious Evin prison in 1983, the child of a secular activist who took part in the 1979 Islamic Revolution but was later jailed for her political activities.

In her recently published debut novel, "The Children of the Jacaranda Trees," Delijani draws on her and her family's experiences to paint a fictional account of Iran through the eyes of children who, like her, were born to jailed revolutionaries. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke to the author, who currently lives in Italy and is on a book tour in the United States.

RFE/RL: Your parents were jailed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and you were born in prison. Your book actually opens with your mother giving birth behind bars. When did you come to learn about the circumstances of your birth and how do you feel about it?

Sahar Delijani:
I actually always knew about my birth story because it wasn't a secret. My mom had always spoken to me about it and when I was younger I just thought that it was a very interesting story. I thought I had the best birth story ever. I was, in a way, proud of it.

But later on when I decided to write this story, I needed more details than she had given me. It was actually very shocking for me, many of the details. I would say that the most shocking fact and part of the whole thing was when she told me that she was interrogated while going through labor and this was something I never knew.

So, I think, from its being interesting [for] a child, it turned into something very, very painful and quite difficult to write. I was very emotionally involved because all the while writing it I realized, I was thinking, "This is my mother and she [was] in such a difficult situation, and I can't do anything about it, I'm just writing it down."

RFE/RL: Your parents took part in the Islamic Revolution. After the revolution they ended up in jail like many others -- your mother for 2 1/2 years and your father for four years. Your grandparents took care of you, your brother and your cousin, who was also born in prison. How do you think you and your family were affected by the experience of those years?

Our entire life has been affected by that. For example, when my parents came out of prison, my father for instance could not go back to university. He was a student when he was arrested. And that already changes your life around completely.

Sahar Delijani
Sahar Delijani
My mom, too -- getting a job was more difficult, just creating a new life from scratch after having come out of prison is something that you never forget. And so every decision was directly or indirectly affected by those years in prison.

RFE/RL: How do your parents feel about the book?

They're very happy, they're very satisfied, and I think it's also because they lived these stories in silence for so long. When my uncle was executed [in prison], my family could not even mourn him, they could not even have a funeral for him. My grandmother never saw her son's body. So now that the entire world knows, it's a sense of relief, I think, and redemption.

RFE/RL: Your uncle was among hundreds of prisoners -- according to some accounts more than 5,000 -- who were executed in Iran in 1988. The mass executions make up a very dark but relatively unknown part of Iran's recent history. Do you think there will be justice one day and the truth about those days will be made public?

Yes, I think that Iran will not stay the same. The situation will not stay the same and I'm sure there will be a day when there will be an independent committee [that] can do research and investigate what happened and everything that needs to be known. All of those who were executed will never come back. But it is important for the truth to come out.

RFE/RL: Can you talk about the title of the book, "The Children of the Jacaranda Trees"? You're referring to the children of the revolution, but why did you choose as a symbol of the 1979 revolution a tree that is not common to Iran?

For me the jacaranda tree is an utopian image and the reason I chose it is when I was already in the [United] States, one day my grandma told me, "I tried to plant this in my garden in Tehran but it never made it because Tehran is too cold, it's a tropical tree."

Years later, when I was writing the novel, this tree took this symbolic form for me, like the Iranian Revolution. There was so much hope behind it, and it never became what it was supposed to be, just like my grandma wanting that tree that could never really make it in that climate. So children of the jacaranda tree are the children of the revolution, but most importantly, are the children of those activists who believed in the revolution, risked everything for it, but then fell victim to it themselves.

RFE/RL: What kind of message do you hope the book sends to Western readers about Iran?

There are two messages, I hope, I have conveyed and they will get from the book. The first thing is that Iran is not a country where, as sometimes it's shown in Western media, some bearded men come once in a while to rule over us and we tolerate them, and then some other people come, and we're always submissive. We're not. Iran is and has always been a land of fighters who've always been fighting for a democratic society. And the second thing is that all over the world people want the same things -- people have the same hopes and have the same fears and doubts.

RFE/RL: Are you planning to translate the book into Persian for Iranian readers?

My dad is actually translating it now and he's through with the last chapter, actually. So once it's done I'm going to [read] it and we're going to work on it together, and then once it's done we'll see what to do, what's the best thing to do to get it into the hands of the Iranians in Iran because, I think, they're the most important people who need to read this book.